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Postcard From Tom: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Sunday, November 7, 2004

Some of the best food in and around San Juan is found in the hills, where open-air pig roasts are popular, or at the beach, where seafood turnovers are fried while you wait. Here's where to head when you'd rather book a reservation and use a credit card:

COMPOSTELA (106 Condado Ave., 787-724-6088)

For upscale dining, in-the-know locals flock to this contemporary Spanish restaurant for garlic- and sherry-sauced veal sweetbreads, seafood paella and coconut cake. Service is formal but also friendly and helpful, an asset considering the vast wine list (culled from a 10,000-bottle cellar). Culture tip: Santurce, the neighborhood Compostela calls home, is also rich with art galleries. Entrees $23-$40.

LA CASITA BLANCA (351 Tapia St., 787-726-5501)

As its name suggests, this spirited restaurant in the middle of a working-class barrio could pass for someone's house. Request a seat on the rustic back patio and settle in with a plate of piping-hot salt cod chips and sangria made sweeter with rum. Based on the cooking that owner Jesus Perez grew up on, the chalkboard menu runs to beef stew, shrimp with rice and a luscious flan. "Love, money and health," a waiter wishes me as he delivers the check, along with a gratis cordial. Entrees $8.25-$13.50

MILLIE'S PLACE (Calle Acueducto 377, Sabana Seca, 787-784-3488)

Talk about fresh! The specialty here is land crabs, which you can view -- titanium-colored and wriggling -- in a pen outside this unpretentious, family-run restaurant (about a 30-minute drive from downtown San Juan, and worth it). Fed a diet of corn and mangoes, the crabs show up boiled, for picking apart at the table or in a stew suggestive of gumbo. Either is best preceded with a seafood turnover and knocked back with coconut water, preferably spiked with whiskey. Entrees $10-$35.

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